JOHANNESBURG – So into the last day of the South African season we go…
There are still seven wickets for the Proteas to claim to make history, and Australia have 91 overs to bat out to save the match and regain some credibility at the end of a distressing tour, having reached 88/3 in chasing a mammoth 612-run victory target.
The fourth day’s play was one of the stranger ones in recent seasons. It lacked the bruising drama of the first three Tests, but what it missed in that department, it more than made up for in quirkiness.
From Dean Elgar’s innings which was made up 215 dot balls (86% of his innings) to Faf du Plessis (120) getting smashed on his already pained right forefinger for the second time in the match, to the whys and the how-longs of the decision to continue batting, as the lead stretched well passed a figure Australia’s limited batting resources can even dream of successfully pursuing.
South Africa’s dressing-room, according to the team’s management, was a virtual infirmary. Morné Morkel’s side was strained and strapped before play, Kagiso Rabada had a stiff lower back and Vernon Philander had his groin strapped up.
And that was before Du Plessis got smashed on his forefinger for the second time by the impressive Pat Cummins, drawing blood.
It was certainly a day on which the team’s physiotherapist Craig Govender earned his keep.
While the continuation of the Proteas second innings caused a collective meltdown with viewers, the ploy was understandable.
History beckons for Du Plessis’ team, and there is no way they would risk losing the opportunity to beat Australia for the first time on home soil in the post-isolation era.
Every other South African itch as far as Test cricket is concerned has been scratched, and with the prize so close at hand, the extra caution was warranted – no matter how that may make viewers feel.
Du Plessis’ eighth Test century was an important milestone for him too at the end of a challenging season.
He hasn’t contributed in the way he’d have wanted with the bat, which wasn’t helped by the fact he came into the series with that finger – which he fractured in the first ODI against India back in February – still not fully recovered.
He’d come into the match having scored only 55 runs in the first three Tests, and then on day one, didn’t offer a shot to a ball that slanted into him from Cummins.
He mixed obduracy with some booming strokeplay to register a very fine century as the Proteas eventually declared at tea on 344/6, with Temba Bavuma unbeaten on 35 and Vernon Philander 33 not out.
In the context of the day, it was a most valuable contribution, and means that four of the home team’s top five have made centuries in the series – the only one missing is Hashim Amla.
Elgar (81) produced a blocking extravaganza as his part of a 170-run fourth-wicket partnership with Du Plessis, while the bowlers got primped and pampered.
Bad light stops play, that's it for Day 4.
AUS 88/3 after 30 overs and need 524 to win. Handscomb 23*, Shaun Marsh 7*.
We'll see you at 10:00 sharp tomorrow. #ProteaFire #SAvAUS #SunfoilTest pic.twitter.com/Hrep8NpQCq
In fact, given the news from the South African dressing-room after lunch, the sight of all three seamers warming up during the tea interval, thus confirming a declaration, caught many by surprise.
Regardless of the state of his intercostals, Morkel then bowled a magnificent spell – eight overs on the trot – claiming 2/18 as Australia lost three wickets, all trapped lbw, in an intense couple of hours.
Who knows how that injury will hold up overnight.
He’ll certainly be strapped up again, and probably be jabbed with cortisone, but what better way to go into retirement than to bowl your country to an historic victory?
The Australians have shown terrific fight in this match, none more so than Cummins, who is a cricketer around whom they can build for the future.
In this Test, as they battled with the fallout from the ball-tampering scandal he has bowled with passion and speed, finishing the game with match figures of 9/141 from 46.5 overs – a career-best performance.
He made his maiden Test 50 too in the first innings, and is the one Australian player who can walk away from this tour with his head held high.